I've been a bit hard on Wal-Mart in the past.
In this blog, I criticized the mega-retailer's efforts to connect with its customers online as ineffectual. Here, I blasted Wal-Mart for removing the customer-service telephone number from its Web site. And, oh my, I took a little too much enjoyment in relating insights from a Wall Street Journal article titled "The End of the Wal-Mart Era."
I certainly haven't adhered to that old advice about keeping quiet if you can't say anything nice. (In my defense, I am a blogger and would starve if I actually tried to do this.) So it's with a sense of relief that I can dole out some compliments for Wal-Mart -- specifically for its new blog called Check Out.
Check Out is a major shift for a company known for its "strict, by-the-books culture," reports The New York Times. Wal-Mart is rarely known as a trend-setter. Yet it breaks new ground here by having its buyers, rather than high-level executives, write the blog entries.
Though it's been live for only a few months, it's already garnered some favorable attention, thanks largely to an early public reveal of Wal-Mart's decision to abandon the HD DVD format in favor of Blu-ray. In addition to product news, the blog exhibits fine Web 2.0 form by including snippets of personal information about its authors. Says a Wal-Mart communications official who helped develop Check Out:
It puts real personality out there in a real conversation.
This is a welcome contrast to Wal-Mart's previous blogging efforts, which were widely criticized as a front for the company's PR department.
This time around, Wal-Mart's employees took the lead on site development, consulted with well-known bloggers from sites like the Huffington Post, and insisted on a lack of censorship. One sign that Check Out bloggers enjoy carte blanche: a recent entry critical of the Windows Vista operating system, the flagship product of one of Wal-Mart's biggest suppliers.
This seems to show that Wal-Mart recognizes the importance of maintaining a free flow of information -- even if it doesn't always reflect well on Wal-Mart or its suppliers. As John Cass, founding fellow of the Society for New Communications Research, told me in an interview:
If you are a blogger and you seem to be independent and you write about a company, but you've been paid by that company, you were not transparent. You've effectively lied to people in some people's eyes because you broke a promise. But if you are an employee of a company, transparency establishes credibility with an audience. Think of it in terms of an academic. They try to look at all aspects of an argument when they are writing a paper. It's the same with blogging. If you look at the critics and provide their arguments in your blog post, it adds more credibility.